HC Deb 23 February 1999 vol 326 cc174-5
30. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

If he will make a statement about the financial efficiency of the Legal Aid Board. [70850]

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The grant allocated for the Legal Aid Board's administration costs is determined with reference to a business plan, which sets out performance targets for processing the board's business under the legal aid scheme. In the financial year 1997–98, the board's unit costs fell by 1.7 per cent.

The Access to Justice Bill will reform legal aid and replace the Legal Aid Board with a Legal Services Commission, which will develop the managerial and strategic systems to implement the new legal aid arrangements and monitor them in future.

Mr. Burns

Does the Minister agree that one way of improving the financial efficiency of the Legal Aid Board would be for the Minister to reform the system to stop the ludicrous position—which is affecting some of my constituents—whereby a European Union national or anyone from outside the EU can come to this country and immediately qualify for legal aid, whereas most British citizens cannot travel the world and get free legal services in other countries at their taxpayers' expense? Does the Minister agree that it is time that this nonsense was stopped?

Mr. Hoon

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are engaged in a significant reform of the legal aid scheme. However, I must tell him that reciprocity in the availability of legal aid with other European Union countries actually works to the advantage of citizens of the United Kingdom, because they benefit from legal advice and help when they go to other EU countries. There is also a consideration under the European convention on human rights, as it is important that those appearing before our courts, of whatever nationality, have access to legal representation.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch)

Last week I was able to visit and see the excellent work of the Redditch citizens advice bureau, and I was impressed by the potential that exists there for providing accessible legal advice to my constituents. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, in the legal aid reforms, the Government will not only keep control of current expenditure on legal aid, but ensure that a larger proportion is made available to provide legal advice in areas such as citizens advice bureaux and law centres—and widen the ambit of legal aid to cover areas, such as welfare benefits, that currently are not covered?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations. She and I were elected on a manifesto that pledged to create a community legal service. It is precisely the Government's intention to get the existing legal aid scheme under control to provide resources to fund a community legal service that will give help to the most disadvantaged in our society.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Government believe that the introduction of conditional fee agreements will substantially reduce the legal aid budget. They also believe that that will open up access to justice to middle-income Britain. Will the Minister tell the House whether, under conditional fee agreements, the costs of successful plaintiffs—whether they be the uplift in cost, disbursements, experts' fees and insurance premiums, if they are affordable and available—will be recoverable on a full indemnity basis?

Mr. Hoon

Subject, obviously, to the approval of the House, the Access to Justice Bill specifies that a successful plaintiff, under a conditional fee agreement, would be able to recover both an insurance premium and the success fee from the unsuccessful defendant.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Under the Minister's plans, the only money that will be left for civil legal aid will be what is left over after the requirements of criminal legal aid have been met. If that is what he intended when he introduced his reforms, why did he not say so 18 months ago, or is this just another example of his failure to give attention to detail?

Mr. Hoon

It is clear that the proposed criminal defence service and the proposed community legal service budgets are separate, but those budgets are set with an expenditure settlement that is settled for the next three years. In that context, proposals to ring-fence one or both budgets would not be realistic. All services funded by the Government are funded by the taxpayer and the Government must be free to consider competing priorities for the finite resources that are available.